Townsend: Our overreaction to Zapad gave Putin an easy victory

  • By defencematters

What is really important is for nations who know Russia and have observed these Zapad exercises in the past to continue their analysis of the exercises and assist our analysts in Washington or at NATO to examine what has been taking place.

Western experts were paying too much attention to the Russia-Belarus military exercise Zapad, giving Russia a big propaganda victory, as transatlantic security expert James Townsend, President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, says in an interview with LETA and Defence Matters. He believes that the West still has many instruments to influence Russia, including new sanctions, but at the same time points out that the sanctions have to be combined with diplomacy – which, unfortunately, is almost never the case these days.

By Guntars Grinums

What are your conclusions after the Zapad exercises?

Zapad exercises have been around for a long time. They have had such exercises before and have passed by pretty much unnoticed by the specialist groups in Washington in the past. This Zapad has been very noticeable because of what happened with Crimea, what happened with Eastern Ukraine and the great fears coming out of the idea that something might happen during this Zapad. And so, because we were so concerned with this Zapad and we talked and wrote so much about it in the West, in a sense we gave a big propaganda victory to Putin by scaring ourselves. Putin was able to bully and scare us without really doing a thing. I don’t think it was good. I wrote articles as well, we all did going back over the past months. I think that we should have done things differently so not to so easily have given Putin this information operation, this propaganda victory. We just overreacted.

Another thing matter regarding Zapad is Belarus. I mean more specifically Russian forces in Belarus, but I think it is still too early to talk about this matter at the moment.

What is really important is for nations who know Russia and have observed these Zapad exercises in the past to continue their analysis of the exercises and assist our analysts in Washington or at NATO to examine what has been taking place. I think we will now have some time for reflection, and this is where your country will be so important – to help us see through your eyes what has happened and the lessons the Russians have learned during their exercises and lessons learned for the West. But my main lesson is that we made it too easy for them to scare everyone with their exercise, because we just sat there and… it was like Halloween… we cried in the media and everyone got scared and that gave them a great victory I think.


It is by far not the first such victory for Russia. Are we capable of avoiding giving them these victories?

The Russians are very good at misinformation and manipulation using social media, the mainstream press and media, etc. They are very good at doing this on a regional basis or on a national basis. Look at what they did in the United States in terms of our elections for the instance. I think when you have a totalitarian system it is easier to do such things. And for us, in the West, in terms of democracy, in terms of the role of the press and social media, which we are still trying to understand, it is very difficult for us to do something similar or to defend against this kind of thing. I think we are getting better at protecting ourselves against it, but using it ourselves in an offensive manner – I am sure it is not our style. As much as it is difficult to educate the public and for all of us to understand that there is a lot of misinformation out there, and not necessarily just from Russia, there is a broader problem - various groups, including in United States, will put out fake news. I think we are going to become better at identifying this, understand how it works and defend against it. At the end of the day, it is about educating the public about this phenomenon so they are better consumers of the media.

We hear that NATO can do more in the Baltics. What can it do?

NATO right now is doing a lot in the Baltics and they did it very quickly and very competently. Having myself worked in NATO and being part of the NATO world for many years, I was very pleased with this, because NATO can also be quite slow. But we always say that NATO needs to be fast, and it can be. I think this proves that.

NATO forces are here, they are getting settled in and the nations which are leading these operations are getting used to what the mission is. US forces have been in and out as well, and it will continue to do so. There will always be the American presence in the three Baltic nations in one way or another. Can NATO do more? The answer is always yes, of course, we can do more. But what is it which we need to be doing? I think we need to be doing more planning between the NATO units that are in the Baltics and in Poland, and with US forces, which are coming in on a bilateral basis as well. Getting them here is one thing, but how can we use them on a daily basis in terms of training in exercises, and in regional cooperation with the Nordic nations for example? My concern has always been that if something would happen, how would they operate together, what is the plan and how would we implement this?

I think there is a lot of work ahead to try to make sure that the NATO forces themselves operate together in a very smooth manner, the command and control is very quick and they can also operate very easily with US forces that are here, as well as with the national forces like the Latvian forces, which are very good. There is still a lot more to do, but this is not necessarily having more troops or forces here as much as it is making sure we can use what is already here the best we can.

Can we rely on US President Trump to react in case of a critical situation?

Of course he is different than any presidents or politicians that we have had in the past. That is for sure. But I think what is important is that there are people around him who are also action agents, if you will. It is not if as the US president can say “this is what we are going to do” and it happens. Around him now are some very good people, some I know personally. If we are in a critical period when very important decisions and important actions need to be taken, they would be well thought through, because I am sure that the people around the president would make sure that this would be the case. I don’t think they would just let him tweet something out on something that is very time sensitive. I think there are people that would make sure that options are presented and discussed, that he understands the implications of various courses of action and so on. When the decision is taken at a very critical time, it would be something taken on the top of his head, but it would be something that would come as the result of discussions with good advisors and looking at options. I think this is how this is how things are shaping up for the White House now.

The US, of course, can focus attention on many things at once. But should we be afraid that North Korea could deflect US attention from the Baltics?

The North Korean crisis is important for everyone in international community because it deals with nuclear weapons and it could eventually end up in a very violent military response. I think that is something that all of us should worry about, even the Baltic states. The solutions have to be international too, whether it is through the United Nations or other nations putting pressure on China to do something about North Korea, whatever it might be. I think it is an international concern and the international community is part of solution, they have to be. In terms of being a distraction for the United States, and therefore less attention being paid to the Baltic states or to situations in Europe, that is for sure - it is a distraction. But there is no reason to be afraid of that. It is a distraction, but it makes your embassies in Washington even more important to keep your concerns known among the decisionmakers. It is important for our embassies here to cable back to the State Department and the Pentagon concerns that you have.

I think it is also the reminder that US can’t do everything. As your concerns made apparent, we have to look for responses and solutions that are not just from the United States but also from your other friends and allies here in Europe and from institutions like NATO. It is just a reminder that whether it is North Korea, or China or the Middle East – there are so many things that could consume the decisionmakers in Washington. Baltic concerns and European concerns are also legitimate. And where we can be helpful – through the embassies and officials whose job it is to make sure that it stays in the eyes of officials. There is also the understanding that there are roles too for friends and partners, and allies within NATO and EU. They have to play a role to help with these concerns as well. It can’t just be the United States, because we can’t do everything. We use to be able to do everything, but not anymore (laughs).

Meanwhile, how much can Russia do simultaneously?

I think you are right in the sense that Russia is in the same situation, they are stretched out as well. We have more resilience and more flexibility to handle a broader range of issues than Russia. Russia too has a limit of what it can do. It is showing now that it has capabilities to do more than it used to be able to do. I think Putin has been very careful in picking and choosing what to do. He did Crimea, then Ukraine and then popped up in Syria. That probably has stretched him out quite a bit. And so, he can’t really afford to do something else I think. I do not know what he is thinking, but he has to operate on the same idea of constraint because he does not have the forces he used to have. He doesn’t have the resources - financial, human resources and military. It is like fighting on two fronts at the same time. Putin is showing an increasing military capability to do things, but it is still primarily on a regional basis. But this doesn’t make the Baltic nations very happy, because you are right there with them. But it does show that if he becomes involved in more things like Syria or something else, then that makes him less able to do something in the Baltics.

Do we still have any instruments left to influence Russia?

I think there are still many more sanctions possible. But the question is what do you want to do with theses sanctions? Is it just to punish, is it to motivate a certain course of action by the Russians? And how do they couple with diplomacy and the efforts by Europe and United States to get him to change a course of action or get him to withdraw from Ukraine? They have to be done together. There cannot be sanctions by themselves. He is not going to change just based on sanctions, there must be a combination. I think we have to look at the diplomacy side too and say: look, we have the Minsk agreements, we have the Normandy process and all these things. Maybe that is where we have to turn up the pressure and come up with something we can all live with. Right now there is nothing. We are not moving anywhere with these sanctions. So let’s see what Kurt Walker, the US special representative for Ukraine, can do in conjunction with the Germans and the French, and if we need to put more sanctions on. If this will help impact our diplomacy efforts, then this is important to do. But just to do sanctions for sanctions’ sake is only half of the equation, we have to do the other part as well.

We speak a lot about the question of Western unity. Do we really have a problem in this area, or are some forces using rhetoric about democracy and the diversity of views, which are completely normal values in our society, to their advantage?

I think it is what you just said. Sometimes Western unity looks disorganized and chaotic, because democracy can be that way. You would think that there is no unity because of elections in the US, France or Germany, the rise of populism – it looks chaotic and not unified. But I actually think it is unified, and a lot of times it becomes apparent when something bad happens - the West comes together. I hope we will not have to test that any time soon, but just because things look chaotic now that does not mean that the unity is not there. Sometimes it is masked by the smog of politics, but then something happens and we all come together. I have seen that constantly. While we are going through a particularly excessive time of chaos right now, under everything there is still that unity which has kept us going since 1945.